Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art

Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art



Auction Closed

July 2, 02:29 PM GMT


600,000 - 1,000,000 GBP

Lot Details





walrus ivory

8.8cm., 3½in.

Please note the following amendments to the printed catalogue This lot contains ivory. Due to recent changes in the laws of many countries (e.g. US, France) Sotheby's recommends that buyers check with their own government regarding any importation requirements prior to placing a bid. For example, US regulations restrict the import of elephant ivory and prohibit the import of African elephant ivory. Please note that Sotheby's will not assist buyers with CITES licence applications where a buyer elects to either collect or arrange their own shipping, nor will Sotheby's assist with the international movement of ivory by air, either as freight or through hand carry. Sotheby's shipping will only assist in shipping the lot to either domestic UK or EU destinations, where delivery is made by road transport. A buyer's inability to export or import these lots cannot justify a delay in payment or sale cancellation.

Probably originally part of the Lewis hoard, which was discovered at Uig bay, or near Mèalasta on the Isle of Lewis by Malcolm MacLoed of Penny Donald, before April 1831;

thence possibly Roderick Pirie or Ririe, a merchant in Stornoway and T. A. Forrest, an art dealer in Edinburgh;

certainly B. Dick, Edinburgh, before 1964;

1964, purchased for £5 by an antiques dealer in Edinburgh, recorded in the stock book for that year as ‘Antique Walrus tusk warrior chessman’;

thence by descent to the present owners


In the 61st episode of the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects Neil MacGregor commented that ‘if we want to visualise European society around the year 1200, we could hardly do better than look at how they play chess. And no chess pieces offer richer insights than the Lewis chessmen’. This notion was equally understood at the time the Lewis chessmen were made. The Franciscan, John of Wales, wrote in his Communiloquium (1260-82), ‘The whole world is like a chessboard, of which one square is white and another black, following the dual state of life and death, praise and blame. The society (familia) of this chessboard are men of this world, who are all taken from a common bag, and placed in different parts of this world, and as individuals have different names. One is called king, another queen, a third rook, a fourth knight, a fifth alphin [bishop], a sixth pawn’. (quoted in Little, op. cit. p. 324). 

The Lewis chessmen are remarkable in that the survival of each one of the familia allows us insights into the characters of each figure with incomparable vividness, imagining their strengths and vulnerabilities. It is this ability to inspire that has stimulated so much creativity in generations of visitors to the British Museum (inv. nos. 1831,1101.78-145) and the National Museum of Scotland (inv. nos. H.NS 19-29), where the Lewis hoard has been display since 1832 and 1888 respectively.

This newly discovered Warder is the first of the Lewis chessmen type to emerge since the appearance of the eponymous hoard in 1831. The attribution of the present warder to the workshop that made the Lewis chessmen is based upon a close visual comparative study (see below) with the extant chessmen in UK public collections, and in consideration of views expressed by leading academics in the field of medieval ivories. In addition, we propose that there is a strong case that the present warder probably formed part of the Lewis hoard itself.

The hoard comprised 93 walrus ivory objects, which consisted of 59 chessmen: 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights and 12 warders (rooks), in addition there were 19 pawns and 14 flat, circular games pieces (tabula) and one belt buckle. Therefore, the hoard could make four complete sets of figure pieces, with the exception of one knight and four warders.

We are grateful to Professor Neil Stratford for providing the following historical account of the discovery of the Lewis chessmen in the 19th century.


by Professor Neil Stratford, former Keeper of Medieval and Later Antiquities, British Museum

The late months of 1831 saw a period of political turmoil with popular riots across southern England and south Wales, not a good time to solicit funds to buy a hoard of ivory chessmen from Scotland. Frederic Madden (fig. 4), an enthusiastic chess player and Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, was successful and the Lewis chessmen came to the Museum, or at least 81 of them, as well as a belt-buckle, the only outsider in the hoard. Madden’s success was achieved in the face of a certain parliamentary opposition, harnessed by a few of the Museum’s Trustees, for at this time the British Museum did not have a Department of British Antiquities- this was to come much later- the Keeper of Antiquities was Edward Hawkins, a numismatist, and his Department embraced Coins and Medals, and Prints and Drawings but not British artefacts. But Hawkins put his weight behind Madden’s bid and it was granted. The sum was 80 guineas, a great deal of money, Madden having knocked the price down from 100 guineas.

The story leading up to Madden’s success is curious and often impenetrable. Early in 1831 the Lewis chessmen were shown to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh. At this time they still belonged to Roderick Pirie, a merchant of Stornoway, the capital of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where they had been found, reputedly by a man called Malcolm MacLoed of Penny Donald. Soon after this, they fell into the hands of an Edinburgh dealer, T. A. Forrest, who paid £30 for them. Forrest sold 10 of the chessmen to a Scottish antiquary, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, a fact which he kept hidden from Madden. Having failed to sell the chessmen as a hoard in Scotland, he approached Madden to buy them for the Museum, one of the principal arguments being that such an important find must be kept together; Sharpe’s purchase was conveniently forgotten. Forrest had tried to sell with an offer whereby the Scottish Antiquaries would receive a group of chessmen for their museum, the purchase funded by contributions from individual members who would each acquire a piece. It is doubtful whether the scheme received much of a stimulus from Forrest, for when in October 1831 the hoard had transferred to London and the British Museum, Madden showed the chessmen to the visiting Sir Walter Scott, who had never seen them. Scott, the master of Abbotsford, short of money though he always was, would nevertheless seem the obvious first port-of-call for any dealer wishing to sell Scottish antiquities.

Where and how were the chessmen found? The Lewis is the westernmost of the Outer Hebrides and it was apparently in the sands of Uig Strand, an inlet in the north-west of the island that the hoard was discovered, although a site a little further south on the same coast has been suggested (figs. 2 & 3). To this day the exact spot remains a mystery. At some time just before April 1831 the hoard was unearthed, it was said in a sandbank, perhaps in the ruins of a small buried dry-stone built structure with ashes from a fireplace on the floor. Later accounts tell of a grazing cow accidentally revealing the chessmen. Fantastical folklore tales of ships moored in the bay, of a sailor swimming ashore clutching a bag, of murder and concealment of the hoard, of confession and a murderer hanged, all these things appeared in later accounts of the find, which soon attained in the Scottish press and in legend a more or less heroic status as a whodunnit. But one thing is sure. From the time of the emergence of the chessmen in Stornoway in the hands of Pirie to its presence first in Edinburgh then in London, anything could have happened. Aside from Sharpe’s original purchase of 10 pieces, he was later able to buy another piece from an owner on Lewis. How many other chessmen were detached from the hoard, either at the time of discovery or later on the Lewis or by Forrest?

It must also be remembered that the Scandinavian origins of the chessmen are very probable. Trondheim or perhaps other Norwegian centres seem to have specialised during the 12th and 13th centuries in carving gaming pieces, often in walrus ivory, the precious tusks coming mostly from Greenland and Iceland, where the Atlantic walrus had its principal breeding grounds. For elephant ivory, whether African or Indian, virtually never reached northern Europe during a long period of centuries until about 1230. As to Trondheim it was the seat of the archbishop of Norway and the Lewis came under its authority, for -it must be stressed- the island was part of the kingdom of Norway from early Viking times until the Treaty of Perth in 1266. Walrus ivory carvings very close in technique and style to the Lewis hoard have been discovered in the region of Trondheim as well as in the township of the archiepiscopal seat of Lund in southern Sweden. It is thus perfectly possible that other “Lewis chessmen” were in circulation, and not just in the Norwegian kingdom. The Lewis chessmen apparently represent the surviving evidence of a submerged iceberg.

(Professor Neil Stratford, 2019)


Scholars have proposed competing theories on the origins of the Lewis chessmen. The interlaced tendril decoration on the backs of the kings’, queens’ and bishops’ chairs and the unusual berserker warders locate the Lewis chessmen in northern Europe, but the style and iconography were not restricted to any one artistic centre, but were prevalent throughout Scandinavia, Ireland, and Britain.


The leading theory on the origins of the Lewis chessmen is that they are Norwegian, and most probably from Trondheim. This is based on both geo-political facts and the survival of the most numerous stylistically comparable works of art in the region. The centres of Oslo, the seat of the kings of Norway, and Trondheim, which was the seat of the Archbishop from 1159, are the most obvious locations where ivory carving workshops could have thrived on secular and ecclesiastical patronage that would have allowed ivory carvers the scope to develop the individual and sophisticated style of the Lewis chessmen. Stratford (op. cit., pp. 41-47) connects the chessmen tendril decoration on the seat backs with an opulently carved walrus ivory reliquary in the British Museum (inv. no. MLA 1959.12-2.1) believed to be Scandinavian, 1150-1200, as well as a walrus ivory sword fitting (inv. no. 9105: w) and a staff-head (inv. no. 9101: w; fig. 5) in the National Museum in Copenhagen of a similar date and with analogous fleshy tendril design. These objects share a common stylistic heritage with works from Ireland and England (Lasko, op. cit.), but the balance of evidence supports a Scandinavian parentage for the chessmen. 


In the first full study of the chessmen Madden concludes: ‘It would appear most probable … that the chess-men ... formed part of the stock of an Icelandic Kappel-mann or merchant, who carried these articles to the Hebrides ... and the ship in which they were conveyed being wrecked, these figures were swept by the waves on shore, and buried beneath the sand-bank ...’ (Madden, op. cit., p. 290). Madden supports his conclusion with some key contemporary Icelandic references to the making and distribution of chessmen. He notes the incident in the Saga of Kröka Ref (or Kröka the Crafty) which mentioned Gunner, the Prefect of Greenland, who - wishing to gain favour with Harald Hardraad, King of Norway (1046-1067) - followed the advice of Barder, a Norwegian merchant, and sent Harald three of the most precious gifts the island could offer: ‘1. a full-grown tame white bear; 2. a chess-table, or set of chess-men, exquisitely carved; 3. a skull of the Rostungr (walrus), with the teeth fastened in it, wonderfully sculptured, and ornamented with gold’ (Madden, op. cit., pp.246-7). Madden goes on to reference Olaus Wormius, the 17th century Danish antiquary, who noted the Icelandic tradition of carving chess pieces, ‘The Icelanders, who are of an ingenious turn of mind, are accustomed, during the long nights of winter, to cut out, by their fire-side, various articles from whales’ teeth. This is more particularly the case in regard to chess-men (at which game they excel); and I possess some specimens of these, distinguished by being of two colours, white and green, which are sculptured so exquisitely, that each piece expresses in features, dress, and attitude, the personage it is designed to represent’ (Madden, op. cit., pp. 248-9). On the question of the green colouring of the chessmen see below.

The origin of the walrus ivory from the shores of Iceland or Greenland is the least convincing argument for the nationality of the sculptor who carved them, because this rare material was sourced to export for carving across Europe. More noteworthy is the discussion around the figure of the bishop which, it has been proposed, is only cited as a bishop in contemporary written sources in Iceland and England. In mainland Scandinavia and elsewhere these pieces were then known as a ‘runner’ or ‘messenger’ (Löber in Norse, or Läufer in German), or alphin (archer). Þórarinsson (op. cit., p. 203) proposes the earliest Icelandic written mention of a ‘biskup’ to be around 1300 (probably referencing an even early source). This is linked to the paradox that bishops first appear on the chess board in their position at the right hand of the king at a time when the Roman Catholic Church strongly opposed priests playing the game, which, Þórarinsson argues, combined with the dispute between the newly formed archbishop of Trondheim and King Sverre of Norway (1151-1202) that resulted in the king’s excommunication in 1194, would have made the carving of bishops as the closest ally of the king in workshops in Trondheim as so politically sensitive as to be unlikely. A more favourable environment is proposed in the episcopal centre of Skálholt and, more specifically, under the patronage of Bishop Páll Jónsson (1155-1211). The Saga of Bishop Páll, believed to date from the early 13th century, mentions a skilled woman artist who worked for the bishop, Margret the Adroit (Þórarinsson, op. cit., p. 208). An ivory crozier, now in the National Museum, Reykjavík, found in a tomb in Skálholt Cathedral has been identified as the work of Margret the Adroit. The latter’s authorship of at least some of the Lewis chessmen has been enthusiastically taken up by Nancy Marie Brown (op. cit). A small ivory warrior found in 2011 at Siglunes in northern Iceland, dating to around 1300, has affinities with the Lewis warders, but its worn condition makes for a poor comparison. Þórarinsson, however, references further Icelandic literary tradition that recognised the rooks as warriors, and adds that berserkers were a regular feature of Icelandic sagas. Advocates of an Icelandic origin for the Lewis chessmen also identify rare carvings, such as the extraordinary Valþjófsstaður door (National Museum of Iceland) and the country’s comparative wealth until the middle of the fourteenth century, centred on the trade in walrus ivory and hide. However, the stylistic homogeneity of carvings made in Iceland, Norway and Britain, as mentioned above, must qualify a comprehensive argument in favour of Iceland.


The theory that the Lewis hoard was the stock of a merchant in chess pieces (whether from Iceland or Norway) buried after a shipwreck was first proposed by Madden and has been the favoured explanation of their fate ever since. However, Madden also quoted one source from which it could be inferred that the chess pieces might have been owned by rulers of Lewis. An Earl of the Orkneys at the beginning of the 12th century, Kali, the son of Kolr, boasted of his noble accomplishments: ‘I know nine several [liberal] arts; I am expert at the game of chess; I can engrave runic letters; I am assiduous at my book; I know how to handle the tools of the smith; I can traverse the snow on wooden scates; I excel in shooting with the bow; I use the oar with facility, I can sing to the harp; and I compose verses’ (Madden, op. cit. pp. 277-8). Caldwell has expanded on the theory that the Lewis chessmen were owned and used on Lewis (Caldwell, op. cit.). The Kingdom of the Isles comprised the Isle of Man in the Irish sea and the islands off the west coast of Scotland. It was part of the wider Scandinavian world and from 1152-3 was linked to Norway politically, economically, culturally and religiously. Much of our knowledge of life in the Kingdom of the Isles comes from the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles of around 1250. Exploring the evidence of castles, administration, church, the economy and art in the Isles, Caldwell concludes that the relative political and economic stability during a dynasty which lasted 200 years could certainly have had the wealth, learning and leisure to have owned, used and appreciated the Lewis chessmen.


It is generally accepted that the Lewis chessmen are amongst the earliest chess sets to use the figure of a bishop. Equally innovative is the depiction of the rook or castle as a standing soldier that Madden seems to have been the first to describe as a warder. The warders are of two types: the majority are bearded with sword in right hand and their shield either held at their left side or in front, and four are shown biting the tops of their shields, identifying them as the legendary Norse warriors known as berserkers. Madden quotes the 13th century Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson, who writes in his Heimskringla: ‘The soldiers of Odin went forth to the combat without armour, raging like dogs or wolves, biting their shields, and in strength equal to furious bulls or bears. Their enemies they laid prostrate at their feet; neither fire nor weapon harmed them; this frenzy was called Berserksgangr’ (Madden, op. cit., p. 271). If it is assumed that the Lewis hoard originally contained four complete chess sets then there would be four warders and one knight lacking from the group. That these could have been separated from the main group acquired by the British Museum and eventually the National Museum of Scotland is indicated by the fact that we know one bishop was acquired by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe separately from the 10 he purchased from Forrest (see Stratford above). It is not known if this bishop came from Pirie or Forrest, but if one bishop was removed from the hoard why not also a warder, perhaps because it was more damaged than the rest. The following study demonstrates that the newly discovered Warder is consistent with the surviving group.

Helmets: All except two of the warders wear similar conical shaped helmets. BM 121 (inv. no. 1831,1101.121) and BM 122 are different with a diamond pattern around the middle and a ‘bowler hat’ shape respectively. One of the British Museum berserkers (BM 125) has no helmet. Within the group of nine warders with conical helmets there are variations, such as BM 120 whose helmet has a central ridge, BM 123 whose helmet has vertical bands, and BM 124 and BM 119 whose helmets have bands around the bottom edge. Within the main conical shape group of helmets, four have ear and neck flaps (BM 116, 117, 118 and 119). All are plain except BM 119 which has incised crosses. The helmet of the present warder fits into this latter group with analogous ear flaps, whilst the neck flap has been lost through damage to the back of the head. The wear to the top of the present warder seems to have reduced its original height with the loss of the point to the helmet (see below).

Hair: All the warders, except two berserkers who wear chain mail under their helmets (BM 124 and BM 125), have hair carved in long, straight, even strands. With all the warders holding shields to their sides the hair terminates above the top of the shield. The hair of the present warder is carved with identical long strands, however, his hair falls longer onto his shoulders and touches the top of his shield. Whilst this is different to the other warders, a similar relationship between hair and shield can be seen in several of the Lewis knights, such as BM 111, BM 108 (unfinished) and BM 107.

Eyes and nose: The eyes of the figure pieces from the Lewis hoard are one of their most engaging features; wide open and bulging, they suggest distinctive characters and a certain vulnerability. The sideways glance of BM 119 or the enraged eyes of BM 124 have often been noted as particularly animated. The eyes of the present warder have suffered over time, but the remains of the proper right eye indicate a similar bulbous form that is akin to the Lewis hoard.

Beards: The majority of the Lewis warders have beards. Some are covered by their shields, which makes it difficult to determine if they have a full beard or just a moustache, and two (BM 119 and BM 122) appear clean shaven. BM 120 is exceptional in that his beard and moustache are carved in parallel lines similar to his hair. The others (BM 116, BM 117, and H.NS 28) have beards, like the present warder, of a flat, neatly curved form with a full drooping moustache. In contrast to the fearsome berserkers the beards of the latter warders gives them a gentle, kindly demeanor. The majority of the Lewis knights have beards of this type.

Shields: Stratford (op. cit., p. 29) publishes line drawings of all the shields held by the Lewis warders and knights which demonstrate how the design of every shield is different. The present warder adds a new variation. Its cruciform design relates to seven of the warders’ and six of the knights’ shields. Knight, BM 105, has the closest design with the junction of the cross interlaced by a circle, but it is more elaborate with a vertical and horizontal bead pattern. One of the warders in Edinburgh (H.NS 28) and a knight (BM 109) have similar designs, but the cross is interlaced by a square pattern rather than a circle. Six warders hold their shields at their sides, like the present warder, and the equivalent number hold their shield in front them, allowing the three berserkers to bite the tops.

Swords: Every warder holds a sword in his right hand, as does the present warder. Ten warders hold their swords vertically and two (BM 120 and BM 121) hold their swords across their bodies. Within the former group, five (H.NS 29, BM 116, BM118, BM 123, BM125) hold the blade of the sword flat to their bodies in contrast to the remaining five and the present warder, who present the blade perpendicular to their bodies. The hilts are all plain, except H.NS 29, which has five drilled holes, and the pommels are round. In the case of six warders (H.NS 28, BM 116, BM 117,BM 118, BM 119 and BM 1222) the sword reaches to the top, or just above, the helmet, similar to the present warder.

Shoulder strap: Three Lewis warders (BM 116, BM 117, BM 118) have shoulder straps formed of two parallel lines running across their backs from the proper right shoulder to under the left arm, as does the present warder. The function of this strap is not clear, since there is no corresponding strap at the front, or sheath on the left side of BM 118, who holds his shield in front of his body.

Costume folds: With the exception of the three berserkers whose garments are incised with regular cross hatching which has been interpreted as representing chainmail, eight warders, like the present warder, wear long straight coats with folds in the front, back and side. BM 121 is exceptional in having folds only at the sides. H.NS 28, BM 117, BM 119, BM 120 and BM 122 have a flat central panel with balanced folds at the edges. H.NS 29, BM 116 and BM 118 are different, and are all close to the present warder, with more schematic folds formed of incised straight lines terminating in a point, which at the back ends around the level of the shoulder blades. In the case of the present warder the folds terminate lower, at around waist level, similar to the front of BM 120.

Surface colour: Madden noted in his seminal 1832 publication: ‘For the sake of distinction, part of them were originally stained a dark red or beet-root colour; but from having been so long subject to the action of the salt-water, the colouring matter, in most cases has been discharged’. It is not known when this dark staining was removed, but today all the chessmen are a pale ivory colour, those in Scotland with a greyish tone. The present warder’s dark tone with areas of encrustation throughout needs further detailed examination, but clearly has the potential to offer valuable new insight into how other the Lewis chessmen may have looked in the past. A dark green area between the proper left arm and the back of the shield could be particularly revealing. Madden quotes the 17th century antiquary Olaus Wormius (see above) who described Icelandic chess pieces in his collection that were coloured white and green. Might the remains of green on the present warder indicate that some of the Lewis sets could have been originally green?

Undersides: The underside of the present warder has an irregularly shaped cavity filled with white inner dentine. The undersides of the Lewis chessmen are very varied, some flat, others with regular shaped clean cavities. The underside of the present warder can be compared with two knights in the British Museum, BM 108 and BM 111.

Surface erosion: Several scholars have observed that the individual pieces of the Lewis hoard have survived in good condition, their apparent lack of wear supporting the theory that they were the stock of a trader in chessmen that never reached its market. This is true for the majority of pieces, but certainly not all of them. Within the warder group, BM 117 and BM 120 are the most extensively worn, having suffered losses to their swords and shield, with damage to the nose and eyes on BM 117, and large losses to the surface on the front and back of BM 120. The damage to the face of the present warder, notably the losses to the left eye and around the head and to the sword and right hand, are more extensive than on the other warders, but are in keeping with the knight BM 105. The fine, random network of channels are a feature of all the Lewis chessmen and has engendered considerable research. It is generally believed that this is the result of fungal action derived from plant roots. The study by Tate, Reiche and Pinzari (op. cit., pp. 24-5) has identified other rare occurrences of this feature in non-chess related items and concludes that ‘at the moment it seems that the damage occurs on ivory from burial in coastal locations.’ The present warder has comparable channels throughout, which supports the view that it too was buried in a coastal location. 


The above observations demonstrate clear parallels between the newly discovered Warder and those in the hoard, accepting the point that all the pieces have differences from each other. The present warder is the only known chessman of the Lewis type which has not been cleaned and this clearly sets it apart from those in the hoard. One can imagine that if it were cleaned to the same extent its difference would seem far less striking. Above all, one of the most distinctive features of the new Warder is the fine network of channels which, tantalisingly, it shares with those in the Lewis hoard. At 88mm in height the present warder is smaller than seven and larger than five of the other warders. The wear to the top of the helmet suggests that the present warder may originally have been one of the larger warders made. This would be consistent with the division of the four supposed chess sets as proposed by Caldwell, Hall and Wilkinson 2010 (op. cit. p. 62). In these groupings two warders are missing from the largest set and two from the smallest set. BM 116 and BM 117, the two largest warders, are in fact closer to the present warder in several respects (along with H.NS 28 - 92mm) than the remainder. Wilkinson (op. cit.) has proposed a system of morphological, proportional and anthropometrical comparisons to the facial features of the Lewis chessmen, known as ‘face mapping’, with the aim of identifying different makers. Her study concluded that there may be at least five craftsmen responsible for the chessman. The damage to the face of the present warder, however, hinders a clear application of this methodology.


The Lewis chessmen are rightly regarded as the most famous chess pieces to have survived from the medieval world. The ‘submerged iceberg’, as described by Professor Stratford above certainly includes many exceptional individual objects, notably the 16 so-called ‘Charlemagne’ chessmen (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris), made probably in Salerno in the 11th century. Foremost amongst those that relate closely to the Lewis chessmen is a single knight on horseback in the Bargello Museum, Florence (Ciseri, op. cit., inv. 64 C, 99mm). Bequeathed in 1888 by Louis Carrand, this knight is similar in size and form to the Lewis knights; each holds a lance in his hand, which extends along the neck of the horse, and a long shield in his left hand. The horse is particularly similar with a cropped mane that falls down neatly between the eyes. The scale of the knight to his stead is identical and, in fact, has been linked to a particular breed of Icelandic horse (probably the Nordland-Lynge) prevalent throughout Scandinavia (Boehm, op. cit.). The carving on the Bargello knight is more delicate and detailed, especially in the chain mail. This may indicate a rather later dating into the 13th century. Charles T Little (op. cit.) published a very fine seated bishop in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (17.190.229; 96 mm) which, like the Bargello knight, shares many stylistic features with the Lewis chessmen, but is more complex in iconography and carving. Little suggests Trondheim as a probable place of manufacture based on the affinity with the ivory chess fragment found at Munkholmen (fig. 5). These relate to two multi-figured chess pieces: a bishop in the British Museum (Dalton, op. cit., cat. no. 160) and a queen in the Schwerin Museum (Goldschmidt, op. cit., no. 244), which share the greater intricacies of the openwork thrones, again perhaps suggesting a dating into the 13th century. A queen in the National Museum of Ireland (inv. P1041, 73mm) is an instructive example of the Lewis chessmen type, but with its smooth, dark surface it has clearly had a different history, having been found in a bog in County Meath some time before 1817. Finally, a small walrus ivory soldier, probably a rook or a pawn, in the Metropolitan Museum (2013.621; 48mm) is very finely carved, with a delicate physiognomy, and like the Lewis warders holds a sword and shield, although like the Bargello knight, his chain mail is more sophisticated than the Lewis berserkers. These exceptional chess pieces clearly share a common cultural heritage with the Lewis hoard.


The above visual comparison between the present warder and the Lewis chessmen discovered in 1831 and on display in UK public collections demonstrates that the present warder is of the Lewis chessmen type and supports the opinion that it was made in the same workshop.

The presence of erosion in the form of a network of narrow channels on the surface of the present warder, which is a characteristic shared with the chessmen from the Lewis hoard, indicates that it was buried in sandy soils for a long period of time. This aspect is significant since it corroborates the likelihood that it was once buried in the same environment as the Lewis hoard. The rarity of the present warder and by extension the absence of extant ivories of Lewis chessmen type, further supports this view.

In addition, if it is correct that the Lewis chessmen comprised four chess sets then four Warders are missing. It is a logical deduction that the present warder could be one of the lost pieces from the Lewis group. However, it should be recognised that in the absence of a recorded find site for the Lewis hoard and for the present warder, there is and will continue to be healthy scholarly debate on this subject.


‘In the Lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…’

The opening lines of the classic British children’s television series, The Sagas of Noggin the Nog, evokes for many the mysterious world of the Lewis chessmen. Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the programme’s creators, paid full tribute to the inspiration of the Lewis hoard, the origins of which are shrouded in mystery and intrigue worthy of their brilliant animation. Few chess pieces have the great humanity and immense charm of the Lewis hoard. From the stately, yet slightly sad expression of the queens to the terrifying berserkers, each of the characters has a universal appeal which has continued to inspire and be re-interpreted. In 2001 the Warner Bros. production of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had a scene in which Hermione stands outraged when one of the stately queens comes to life and smashes an opposing knight to pieces - ‘that’s wizard’s chess!’. Most recently in Hoshino Yukinobu’s 2011 Manga Professor Munakata’s British Museum adventure the Lewis chessmen play a central role. There is certainly more to the story of the present warder still to be told, about his remarkable journey through the ages, and, just as interesting, about the next chapter on his story now that he has been rediscovered.

Sotheby’s is delighted to have the opportunity to offer the present warder for sale.


F. Madden, ‘Historical Remarks on the introduction of the game of Chess into Europe, and on the ancient Chessmen discovered in the Isle of Lewis’, in Archaeologia, XXIV, 1832, pp. 203-91;

A. Goldschmidt, Die Elfenbeinskulpturen aus der romanischen Zeit, vol. IV, Berlin 1926;

O. M. Dalton, Catalogue of the Ivory Carvings of the Christian Era in the British Museum, London, 1909, pp. 63-73;

J. Beckwith, Ivory Carving in Early Medieval England, London, 1972, no. 166;

P. Lasko, Ars Sacra, 800-1200, Harmondsworth, 1972, pp. 236-7;

D. Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires du Moyen Age, Fribourg, 1978, pp. 113-16, nos. 164 & 168;

P. Lasko, ‘The Lewis chessmen’, in English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, Hayward Gallery, London, 1984, p. 227 cat. no. 212;

N. Stratford, The Lewis Chessmen and the enigma of the hoard, London, 1997;

J. Robinson, The Lewis Chessmen, London, 2007;

D. H. Caldwell, M. A. Hall, and C. M. Wilkinson, ‘The Lewis Hoard of Gaming Pieces; A Re-examination of their Context, Meanings, Discovery and Manufacture’ in Medieval Archaeology, 53 (2009), pp. 155-203;

D. H. Caldwell, M. A. Hall, and C. M. Wilkinson, The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked, Edinburgh, 2010;

B. D. Boehm, https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/the-game-of-kings-medieval-ivory-chessmen-from-the-isle-of-lewis/exhibition-blog/game-of-kings/blog/horsing-around);

D. H. Caldwell and M. A. Hall (eds), The Lewis Chessmen New Perspectives, Edinburgh, 2014;

D. H. Caldwell, ‘The Kingdom of the Isles’, in The Lewis Chessmen New Perspectives, D. H. Caldwell and M. A. Hall (eds), Edinburgh, 2014, pp. 71-93;

C.T. Little, ‘A Romanesque walrus ivory bishop in New York’ in The Lewis Chessmen New Perspectives, D. H. Caldwell and M. A. Hall (eds), Edinburgh, 2014, pp. 321-27;

G. G. Þórarinsson, ‘The Lewis chessmen: the Icelandic theory’, in The Lewis Chessmen New Perspectives, D. H. Caldwell and M. A. Hall (eds), Edinburgh, 2014, pp. 201-20;

J. Tate, I. Rieche, F. Pinzari, ‘The Lewis chessmen: what can examination of the surfaces tell us?’, in The Lewis Chessmen New Perspectives, D. H. Caldwell and M. A. Hall (eds), Edinburgh, 2014, pp. 11- 27;

C. Wilkinson, ‘The facial analysis of the Lewis chess pieces’, in The Lewis Chessmen New Perspectives, D. H. Caldwell and M. A. Hall (eds), Edinburgh, 2014, pp. 1-9;

N. M. Brown, The Ivory Vikings. The mystery of the most famous chessmen in the world and the woman who made them, New York, 2015;

I. Ciseri (ed),Gli Avori del Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Milan, 2018, pp. 167-8, no. VI.14

There is no comparative Radiocarbon dating analysis (C14) for any of the Lewis chessmen in the British Museum or National Museum of Scotland. The radiocarbon dating for the present warder below indicates a date later than is generally accepted on stylistic grounds for the Lewis hoard. This could suggest that the entire hoard dates around 80 years later. However, the tests below give a date range rather than a precise date. This range is in excess of 100 years and might be influenced by many factors. In the case of the Lewis hoard the existing test may need further analysis to take account of the 800 years during which the chess pieces are believed to have been buried, the possible influence of the fungal deterioration from plant roots or other possible contamination to the sample examined and the specific criteria used for tests on marine ivory.

A Radiocarbon Calibration of Marine Sample report prepared by J. Walker of RCD Lockinge, dated October 2018, states that allowance for the maximum marine reservoir effect gives a date of AD 1283 to AD 1479 for the walrus ivory (95% confidence interval).

A Radiocarbon dating measurement report (ref. no. RCD-9138) prepared by J. Walker of RCD Lockinge, dated September 2018, states that the walrus ivory dates between AD 1328 to AD 1434 (95% confidence interval).

A report confirming that the material of the present warder is walrus ivory (Odobenus rosmarus) prepared by Dr Sonia O'Connnor on 18th October 2018 is available on request.